Updated: Feb 22
Each year, high school seniors receive more and more waitlist offers from colleges. These emotionally treacherous college decisions used to come to some of my students, and I would talk about them when they came up. However, in the past five years, it’s become clear that almost all seniors receive a waitlist offer from at least one college now.
What is a waitlist offer?
If you’ve been placed on a college’s waitlist, you have received a denial letter. It is a decision, and colleges consider it final. However, they may contact you later to offer you a spot in the incoming class if one becomes available. Sometimes, the waitlist is ranked, and colleges call students in order; other times, admissions representatives will review the list to find a best-fit student.
Sometimes, a waitlist is just a nod from the college that they like the student (or their parents, in the case of legacy status), but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the letter.
Should I accept the offer?
Only accept a spot on the waitlist if you'd enroll. Don’t take someone else’s spot just because you’re curious to know what happens.
After you accept a waitlist offer, you must make other plans and submit a deposit at another college by the May 1st deadline.
When will colleges reach out?
Colleges call students as spots open up, which can happen at any time. Often, colleges will go through a number of students who decline (and take 3 days to do it) before they find one who accepts, so the process can take time. Indeed, some students are even admitted off the waitlist after they’ve moved into a dorm on another campus.
Colleges rarely reach out to tell students they will not be admitted from the waitlist, so this can create a painful summer for students. Minimize pain by truly committing emotionally to another college. Let the call from the college be a total, wonderful surprise if it comes. It’s the same result, but you won’t be waiting desperately all summer during the time you should be celebrating your hard work and exciting journey to come.
What if I'm admitted from the waitlist?
If you want to attend, tell the admissions officer you will respond within 2-3 days. Make sure to review a financial aid award before accepting – but don’t get your hopes up about scholarships.
If you don’t want to attend anymore, tell them as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next student.
Is there anything I can do to improve my chances?
Check the decision letter and college admission portal to see if the college is open to receiving waitlist letters. Don’t send a letter to the college if they don’t want one. If you’re unsure, give the office a call.
Here’s how to structure your waitlist letter:
Thank them for the decision (not for the chance or opportunity). Assure them they are still your #1 choice.
Include an update: new and significant information that has come to light since you submitted your application (e.g. new accomplishments; new activities and projects; new standardized test scores; senior year grades if the college has not seen these yet; any new personal circumstances).
Write 1-2 sentences about why this college is perfect for you, mentioning a college visit, if you’ve made one.
Sign off, reiterating that this is your top college choice. I recommend saying the words, “if you accept me from the waitlist, I will definitely say yes.”
Make sure your letter sounds like you understand what a waitlist is. As far as the college is concerned, you have already received your final decision, and there is no second review.
Follow the directions on the admissions portal to upload the letter. If there are none, find the contact information for your regional admissions representative on the website and email it to them.
Can I send recommendation letters or video essays? Can I meet with the admissions representative?
You can always ask! The likely answer is that it’s overkill, but the smaller the college is, the more likely it will be that they will admire the interest you’re showing.
As you write your waitlist letter, you'll need to express why the college is a perfect fit for you. Download my completely free College Research Guide to get my ultimate list of resources for the college search so you can show this college how much you really love them.
Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.